Victorian Echoes

It’s story time, kids. As many of you know, I grew up in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s. Cutting edge technology at the time was a decade or two behind the rest of the world, but I’m not going to bore you with tales of reel-to-reel audio, rotary phones, giant computers, record players, super 8 home movies and the rest of hipster-friendly junk. I want to tell you about the remnants of Victorian tech that I remember, ghostly things that still held on a little in the collective memory of Soviet people. These were all ingenious things, the iPhone-level tech of the time.

When I started school, fountain pens were mandatory. The pen itself is interesting enough — it was a poorly made, cheap Soviet clone of a Parker 51, a futuristic looking pen with a hooded nib, an ingenious design that is not seen much in modern fountain pens. When you think of a typical fountain pen it has a large, exposed nib that dries out very quickly. There’s a joke about the aesthetics of circumcision in there somewhere, but that’s not the point that I was trying to make at all.

The point is that my desk still had inkwells for dip pens, an archaic bit of technology. My father, who went to the same school actually learned how to write with these dip pens. Steel nibs allow for a much finer penmanship (look up some examples of Spencerian and Copperplate calligraphy styles on YouTube — you won’t be disappointed).

Soviet post offices still used to provide these inkwells and steel pens well into the 1980s. Weirdly enough, I think these persisted in post offices in America into the 80s as well. I can’t find any evidence to that online, but I’ve seen a cartoon in Mad magazine about it.

Next up is an opera hat. I, of course, have never seen one in person, but Old Lady Shapoklyak, the sworn enemy of the Soviet Pokemon Cheburashka wore one and was named after it. Here she is wearing what might look like a normal old lady hat, but it is a chapeau claque, a collapsed opera hat, the one that makes a satisfying sound when it expands.

It’s more of a fwooomp than a clack, but OMG what a crazy piece of tech. I badly want to actually take one of these to the opera, expand it afterwards and hear that sound.

Then there’s another children’s character, the terrifying Moydodyr. These days he’s a friendly modern sink that promotes good hygiene. Sometimes he carries around a giant toothbrush, just like our future president, Vermin Supreme. But not in my time! Oh no, he used to be a terrifying Victorian-style washbasin.

It bears explaining on how this piece of furniture used to work. In the days before indoor plumbing (many Soviet households in the 1960s fell into that category) would have what looked like a normal sink, but water would be stored in a little tank with a spring-loaded plunger at the bottom. You’d press on this plunger and water would drip down on your hands, down into the sink, and into a bucket that was under it. I have seen a similarly designed soap dispensers in old buildings in NYC. You might ask — but how did people shower? Well, they did not. Once a week they’d visit a bath if they were lucky. They’d also had shirts with detachable cuffs and collars, and sometimes even whole shirt fronts — the ones that you can see roll up comically in old cartoons.

It’s also worth mentioning that my dad’s generation did not have proper gas stoves — all the food was prepared on Primus burners. I’ve only read about these in books, but with the magic of YouTube we can see how they worked. Cooking on pressurized kerosine is pretty hardcore.

I’ve also seen a lot of oil lamps converted to electricity. It is pretty interesting to see that the technology of these things became so refined that Aladdin lamps are still being made. Actually seeing how one works is very interesting – I am fascinated by the design of that glass chimney that makes it glow so bright.

Everything old is new again: WeWork is bringing back communal apartments, maybe galoshes will become all the rage in Williamsburg.